I'm considering the purchase of a new turntable. Where do I begin?

Naturally you'll want to start thinking about your budget. New turntables start in the $100 range, and they can cost as much as a new home. The most affordable turntables on the market are usually automatic or DJ turntables, built for convenience or just to introduce you to a new hobby. This is not to beat up on them. They're worth the cash if you're just looking to get your feet wet or if you want to archive a couple records and call it quits. At the root of it, they play records, which is all you need to set the wheels in motion.

What's an automatic turntable?

There are a few varieties. Fully-automatic turntables engage the arm, drop it on the record, lift it up at the end of the side, and return it to the armrest, all with the simple depression of a single button. They usually shut off as well. If you're drinking a beer and find yourself drowsy after the first track, feel free to fall asleep. The turntable will take care of itself.

Next, there are semi-automatic turntables. These either lift the arm and return it to the rest at the end of a side, or just turn off. You'll usually have to engage the arm yourself. These days, most turntables are either fully manual or fully automatic. There are only a few left that are semi-automatic.

Last, let's discuss manual turntables. It's simple; you have to do everything yourself. However, they normally have dampened cueing levers that lift and lower the arm for you, which means you don't have to rely on the steadiness of your fingers to get the needle in the groove.

Why would I choose a manual turntable?

Simply put, they sound better and last longer. It's just like car windows. The ones that require you only to push a button never last as long as the ones that you have to roll up and down yourself. In terms of sound quality, automatic turntables and arms add gears and parts to the equation that add resonance and reduce rigidity, which amounts to degraded sonic performance. We'll discuss those details later on in our conversation.

I value my LPs and want them to sound great, where should I continue my research?

You'll probably want to enter the market of manual turntables in the $300-$400 price range. Below that, there are mostly consumer-grade and DJ turntables. Pro-Ject and Music Hall are reliable manufacturers who kick out products that perform wonderfully and are fairly priced. It can seem like quite the extravagant investment, but most folks agree that such turntables pay for themselves in their longevity and in the enjoyment they yield. It's important to keep in mind that you've got to start somewhere. You don't need to spend this kind of money in order to listen to records, but it's worth pinching your pennies for a turntable in this arena of quality. If you need a quick fix, you can get great results from one of the DJ tables that we carry, or one of the more affordable automatic models. Of course, there's also the slightly risky market of used equipment. There are great deals out there. If you go this route, make sure you trust the seller, and that they know how to package a turntable properly for shipment (if they're not local). Then come to us for a new cartridge! We're also happy to appraise used turntables for you. Email or call us and we'll let you know what we think of the turntable you're considering.

What makes one turntable sound better than another?

A million things. Well, not that many, but there are lots of factors. Mass, rigidity, the materials used, the stability of the motor, and isolation are just a few key concepts that play significant roles in the overall performance of the turntable. For starters, mass is usually important because the more massive the turntable, the less like it is to allow external vibration and resonance to get back to the record. The phono cartridge acts very similar to a microphone. That's why when you tap on the base of a turntable, you can hear it through the speakers.

The materials used in the construction of the turntable are also elemental. Picture this: you pick up a hunk of metal and you knock on it a few times. There is a little decay (resonance) each time you hit it. Then you grab a slab of granite and rap on it. It's pretty acoustically dead, no? Now you should be able to grasp how the material of the platter and plinth are critical. For the plinth, MDF (multi-density fiber) , wood, rock, and acrylic are a few choice materials. For the platter, acrylic, aluminum, glass, and MDF are common.

Of course, if the record is not spinning at a consistent speed, it's going to sound like crap. This is why the turntable's motor is important. It needs to handle the incoming AC power in a fashion that prohibits variation in the speed of the motor pulley (for belt-drive turntables).

The isolation of the turntable goes hand-in-hand with the materials discussed above. They are good isolators, and prevent unwanted resonance and vibration from traveling back up to the record. There are a number of measures that you can take to heighten the isolation of your turntable as well. You can get record mats or isolation feet, build a mass-loaded platform, or choose from a variety of other "tweaks" that'll incrementally improve the sound quality that your turnable is capable of.

What’s the difference between a stylus and a needle?

For practical purposes, nothing. Technically, the stylus is just the diamond tip that physically tracks in the record groove. However, folks use these terms interchangeably, so you can call us asking for a stylus or a needle, and we’ll know what you’re talking about.

What’s the difference between a stylus (or needle) and a cartridge?

The cartridge is the piece to which you attach the needle. Which stylus replacement you require hinges entirely upon which cartridge you already have.

Aren’t there all kinds of cartridges?

Yep, thousands upon thousands. Some look completely wacky, others appear very “normal.” Generally speaking, cartridges are either standard-mount or p-mount, moving magnet (MM) or moving coil (MC).

Ok, so what’s standard and p-mount?

Standard-mount cartridges are probably the most common style, and they’re capable of the best sonic performance (specifically MC cartridges, but we’ll get to that a little later). They are secured to the tonearm with two vertical screws spaced ½” apart, and four small lead wires coming from the tonearm are attached to posts on the back of the cartridge body. They require more tedious installation procedures, including alignment as well as tracking force and anti-skate adjustment.

P-mount cartridges have four slender pins at the back, and they plug directly into a tonearm that’s designed to accept them. No fidgeting is necessary. They’re designed to be quick and convenient. Though there are some great models out there, they usually don’t sound as good as a similarly priced standard-mount due to the fact that they don’t allow for adjustments and calibrating.

And what about MM and MC cartridges? What are they?

It’s really quite literal. MM (moving magnet) cartridges involve a magnet that’s attached to the cantilever (the tiny bar with the actual diamond adhered to it). As the diamond tracks, it moves in response to what’s in the groove, which causes the whole cantilever/magnet assembly to move with it. The “moving magnet” interacts magnetically with fixed coils inside the cartridge body, which in turn convert the magnetic signal into an electrical one. The signal is sent down the tonearm, out of turntable via RCA cables, and so on. Check it out:

Cartridge Coils

MC (moving coil) cartridges operate in much the same way, except the coils are attached to and move with the cantilever. In the diagram above, just imagine the coils connected directly to the cantilever (instead of the magnet), and the magnet being fixed somewhere behind them. MC cartridges do not have user-replaceable styli, the vast majority of MM cartridges do. MC cartridges can often be traded in for a discount toward a new one, due to the fact that their diamonds cannot be replaced.

What’s the best way to figure out which needle I need?

Contrary to popular belief, the model number of your turntable is not the most reliable way to determine the stylus that you need. Turntables were often packaged with varying cartridge models, and if you bought your table used, there’s no way of knowing if the original cartridge is still intact. The model of your turntable is a good place to start, but we’d rather you check the model of your cartridge. This information is usually stamped on cartridge body. Sometimes the model of the needle is even stamped on its housing, which simplifies things further. We can look up most any cartridge or needle model number and pin down what you need in a heartbeat. If none of this information is visible, email us a picture of your existing stylus and cartridge. We can usually eyeball it with 100% accuracy. If your stylus is not available, don’t fret, we can set you up with a new cartridge.

There are so many cartridges out there! How do I go about choosing one?

As I’m sure you’d guess, there are a lot of factors involved here. Consider your budget. What are you ok with spending? Think about the extent to which you value your record playback, the quality of your audio gear, and how much disposable income you may or may not have at the moment. If you have a turntable that retails for $100, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to be shopping in the $300 range for a cartridge. Conversely, if you spent $1500 on your turntable, you’ll want to do it justice, and a $50 cartridge will not really fit the bill. Next, identify the mounting style of your current cartridge. Is it a standard-mount or p-mount? Your new cartridge will have to mount to the arm in the same fashion. Now it’s time to start reading! Read about the cartridges in your price range. They vary in their strengths. One might be very good with detail and may be “faster,” more upfront sounding, while another may sound warm and welcoming but might not pull as much detail from the groove. It’s simply a matter of what you prefer in your own system. Our website discusses the sonic characters of most all the cartridges we carry. Our sales staff is also happy to chat with you about it, so feel free to email or call. For audiophile-caliber turntables, there are also some more complicated things to keep in mind. You’ll want a cartridge that’s a decent match for you tonearm. For example, you don’t want to use an extremely light cartridge if your tonearm is high in mass. It’ll play fine and it might sound good, but you can count on it not sounding as good as it could, and this’ll speed up record damage. It’s like fishing for sunfish with a rod that’s design for catching marlins. As a general rule, pair low-mass cartridges with low-mass arms, medium with medium, high with high. The compliance of the cantilever is another factor. Usually a tonearm will call for a cartridge with mass and compliance within a certain range. Give us a call and we’ll let you know what’s what, if you don’t already know.

You mentioned record damage. My records are precious. How do I prevent this?

As mentioned above, make sure your cartridge is a decent match for your tonearm. The arm should be able to control the cartridge, and mating them based on mass is a reliable way of ascertaining this. Also make sure your cartridge is set up properly. If the stylus is tracking awkwardly in the groove, it’ll be grinding on the groove in funny ways. It might be shouldering one side of the groove or the other, and it’ll wear down the delicate groove in a corresponding manner. This leads to unwanted distortion, decreased longevity of the stylus, and a record that doesn’t sound like it’s supposed to. We’ve got plenty of alignment tools, so shop around on our website. Keep your records and stylus clean too! Both will last longer, plus you want the stylus to transcribe what’s in the groove, not the dust bunnies that have accumulated. Last, remember that every time you play a record, you are in essence damaging it. On a micro level, the diamond melts the groove as it passes through. The groove will wear down whether you like it or not, so just enjoy your records and do what you can to slow the deterioration.

Why does my record player sound so quiet compared to my other components?

Odds are you need a phono preamp. Older stereo receivers and amps are almost always equipped with jackets that are labeled “phono.” This means that phono preamps are installed therein. Record players send a quieter signal than do CD players, cassette decks, iPods docks, etc, and they therefore require additional amplification. Receivers and amps released during the 90s and later (when CDs became the primary medium of audio playback) commonly lack this feature, and necessitate an outboard phono preamp in order to use a record player with them. All record players demand a preamp at some point in the signal chain. If the preamp is not built into the receiver or into the record player itself, an outboard preamp will be necessary.

How do I hook up a phono preamp?

Here are the basics:

turntable RCA cable output → phono preamp RCA input → phono preamp RCA output → stereo receiver RCA “AUX” input

So you’ll need a preamp and a spare set of RCA cables. Keep in mind that the “AUX” input on your receiver is the same as the “CD,” “Cassette,” and “Video” inputs. They’re all what’re called line-level inputs. A line-level signal is what the phono preamp’s output sends. When the signal leaves the preamp output, it’s basically the same as what a CD player or cassette deck would send, which is why any of those inputs on your receiver will work.

How important is the quality of the preamp?

Very. If you’ve got a good cartridge and turntable, a good preamp behind them is advisable. You’ll want something that boosts the phono signal in a clean and quiet manner. This way you’ll be getting the most from your entire rig. Generally speaking as you step up the line of available preamps, you’re paying for a lower noise floor. In terms of sonic performance, you’ll hear more of what’s in the record groove and with less extraneous noise.

So how do I go about choosing a phono preamp?

Remember from above that there are two sorts of standard-mount cartridges, MM and MC. You can get preamps that are built solely for MM cartridges, solely for MC, or for both types. All MM cartridges have outputs of 2.5mV or greater, 4-5mV is typical. These are considered “high output” cartridges. There are also high output MC cartridges that normally kick out about 2.5mV of output. These can be used with MM phono preamps. However, most MC cartridges are “low output” cartridges. Their outputs generally range from .3-.8mV, and they require a phono preamp designed to accommodate that output level. Preamps that deal with both MM and MC cartridges either have separate inputs or have a switch that can be flipped to apply additional gain for use with low output models. Higher end preamps often have several gain and loading settings that allow you to optimally mate them to your cartridge based on output and electrical impedance. MC cartridges have recommended loading values set forth by their manufacturers. This information can be found on our site as well as in the literature that comes with the cartridge.

For low output MCs, a good rule-of-thumb is to have enough gain in the phono stage to amplify the cartridge output to 250mV. Here is a table of gain values that will do that.

Cartridge Output ...... Gain in dB

0.50mV ......................... 54dB
0.40mV ......................... 56dB
0.30mV ......................... 58dB
0.20mV ......................... 62dB
0.10mV ......................... 68dB

There are also solid-state and tube driven phono preamps, which further complicates your decision but also makes it more fun! Solid-state electronics tend to sound more clean and quiet, while tube gear is more warm, “musical,” and inviting. It’s just a matter of preference.

What’s the best way for me to convert my records to digital files?

There’s no clear-cut answer to this question, but let’s just say it’s simple, and you can do it yourself! Here are a few schematics that depict your options:

turntable RCA output → stereo receiver phono RCA input → stereo receiver tape/line RCA output → computer 1/8” input

turntable RCA output → phono preamp RCA input → phono preamp RCA output → computer → 1/8” input

USB turntable USB output → computer USB input

Don’t fret. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. If you’ll recall our discussion of phono preamps, take note of the fact that the phono signal only needs to be boosted to line-level for your receiver to handle it properly (along with a little RIAA equalization, but that’s not relevant here). It’s the same deal when you’re connecting your turntable to a computer, CD burner, cassette deck, etc. These pieces of gear, as a general rule of thumb, always have line-level inputs. The inputs may not be RCA inputs like your receiver has, but we have all the adapter cables you’ll need for mating an RCA output with pretty much any other sort of input.

What do I have to do after I send the signal to my computer?

At that point you’ll need to use some sort of software to record the files. Affordable recording software can be found at local electronics stores or on the web. There are even free programs available for download. Pricier software usually offers more pop/click filters, various recording-quality settings, among many other features that you don’t need but may come in handy if you want to be thorough. Once the files are recorded, you can split them up into separate tracks or run whatever filters you choose to. Once you feel like the material is ready, you’ll need to convert it to a listenable media, such as an MP3. Then you can load it up on your iPod, burn it to a CD, etc. Again, it’s not as tough as it sounds. Don’t be afraid to implement a little trial and error until you find a system that works for you. At first, the process may be littered with frustration, but once you get the hang of it, it’ll be smooth sailing from there on out.

Should we discuss A/D converters?

Perhaps, but don’t let this bog you down. An A/D (analogue to digital) converter is exactly what you think it is. It converts an analogue signal, like the one your turntable sends, to a digital one. If you’re recording your vinyl to your computer, this necessarily takes place at some point in the signal chain. Your computer has an A/D converter built in. If you’re using a phono preamp between your turntable and computer, the preamp is sending an analogue signal to your computer’s soundcard, where the A/D converter resides. If you’re using a USB turntable, the converter lies therein. It’s really only an issue if you’re trying to get the highest-quality recordings possible. You can purchase external soundcards that have better converters and offer higher sampling rates, which amounts to less material lost in the analogue to digital conversion.

What other things can I do to get better sounding recordings?

It all starts with your turntable and cartridge. These have the most impact on how refined the recordings will turn out. Next, the phono preamp you choose is bears weight on the sound quality. The more information the preamp is capable of allowing through, the more information your computer or CD burner will be able to gather. The soundcard you’re using will have a very similar effect, so consider that as well. Last, if you want to get the absolute most from your recording rig, make sure that all the settings on your soundcard and in the recording software are optimized, and remember to convert the recorded information to music files of the highest quality. Doing these things will create much larger files that’ll take up more space on your hard-drive, so keep an eye on the space you have available.

So you never answered my original question. What the best way to do this?

Right. The original question. If you have a decent turntable, don’t waste your money on a USB one, though it may be slightly more convenient. Spend your money on a cartridge or preamp upgrade. You’ll be much happier with the results. If you’re on a budget and have no equipment at all, this project can be carried out affordably. We have entry-level turntables, both USB and not, that’ll get the job done. Again, remember that the turntable and cartridge have the most impact on the quality of the recordings. If you’ve still got all your old stereo gear, you may need nothing more than a few dollars worth of cables.

Can you tell me about record cleaning machines?

Yes. The entry-level model costs about $200. It’s fully manual, which means that you manually apply the fluid and scrub the record. After scrubbing, you engage the vacuum to remove the muck. Automatic models start around $600. The additional cost will get you things like automatic fluid application, scrubbing, rotation and vacuuming. There is no faster, more thorough method for cleaning records, so if you have a lot of records and plan on obtaining many more, this sort of machine might be worth your while.

I don’t think I need a record cleaning machine. What are some other options?

There are many other fantastic options for you. Let’s begin our discussion with enzymatic cleaners. Enzymatic cleaners are typically more labor-intensive, but they do a great job. Usually you’d apply the fluid, scrub the record, let the fluid sit for a while to work its magic, then rinse the record off with distilled water. Most folks let the record air-dry after this process. You can use a dish rack or the like. It’s a bit of a headache, but your records will appreciate it. Some of the most praiseworthy lines include Disc Doctor, LAST, Mobile Fidelity, and Audio Intelligent, to name a few. Their recommended methods vary, so you’ll have to look into what each manufacturer advises for their respective products.

Ooof. That sounds a bit laborious. Isn’t there anything more simple?

Yes! That’s the great thing about Needle Doctor. We carry a huge variety of products that cater to the needs of a huge variety of customers. We have a bunch of affordable records cleaning kits, such as the classic Discwasher D4. This kit includes a brush and fluid. You apply the fluid to the brush, then wipe the record off with it. It’s a snap. Many such kits include alcohol-based fluids, so they dry within seconds and your record is ready to be spun. Alcohol-based cleaners are not abrasive if used within reason. You don’t need to clean a record with fluid each time you play it.

So what about routine maintenance?

If you feel that your records are reasonably clean and you just want to keep them that way, get a carbon-fiber brush. These are designed just to scoop the dust off the disc before each play. They’re quick, handy and effective if wet-cleaning is not called for in your circumstance. Everyone should have one these lying around!